These are domestic pictures, and they are very beautiful. They have a secret, having to do with inwardness and with containment. They have been taken in the kitchen, in living rooms and in gardens, sometimes they show windows and sometimes they have been taken through windows. Over there lies the landscape featuring woodland, roads and other houses. In the foreground you might find details of a porch or of a verandah, with nearby a table-top or a windowsill.
The artist's topic, obviously enough, is continuity, represented in the first instance by an inhabited house in a landscape. But at the same time he is interested in foodstuffs and in quite casual domestic arrangements. The pictures, if you take long enough over them, describe eating patterns which aren't out of the ordinary: fried eggs, for instance, are much the same the world over although in this instance they have cohered to form a multiple. Then there are empty cups and plates such as you might come across almost anywhere. On one such plate, rather sweetly, two spoons rest side by side smeared by remnants of whatever was originally on the plate. Two embroidered birds tweet to either side, as if interested in the remaining scraps, but even so it is still a study in washing-up for the paste and sauce will be hard to remove from the spoons. The eaters were, in all likelihood, children and, despite the artifice of the two interested birds, this is a picture about eating, using a laden spoon as a ladle to fill a mouth. In goes the spoon and tongue, teeth and lips retrieve and retain the contents en route to the stomach.
Beautiful pictures don't, as a rule, deal with the actualities of ingestion. Food- stuffs do feature in high art, but rarely old yoghurt pots and orange peel. These, of course, are the realities of life as we live it on a daily basis: dollops of gruel, crudely sliced bread and opened tins. We should be thankful that the artist takes us behind the scenes in such an intimate way. The pictures, though, are part of a quite different project, one demanding unusual tact and insight. The artist (John Askew) was a guest in Russia over many years, and he came to know his hosts very well. Photographers in recent decades have traveled the world and invited into all sorts of dwellings, more than often at short notice. What then has happened over the years is that photographic portraiture has taken on a stunned look, close to official record keeping – to the point of becoming alienating and repellent.
John Askew was a guest, and guests don't, as a matter of etiquette, ask you to stand up straight and refrain from smiling. Guests of long standing probably don't ask you to pose at all, for they know what you look like and can recall you perfectly well. All the same, a guest who enjoyed your company might want a keepsake or memento of how exactly you were and remain. Appearances may count for something, but they reveal little of what you were like, even really like. And maybe what I want to remember, if I was the guest of long standing, is what it felt like to be there in your place, sharing something of your daily life. A forensic study of your children’s eating habits might be evocative but how much more touching in the company of those modestly embroidered birds fluttering and singing for all they are worth. This is what I noticed, the artist suggests, when I was in your company. Sometimes the artist and guest were simply in their place, looking from their windows towards the river which they took for granted. Sometimes he was a participant out in the snow with the children on a clear day. He was impressed by his hostess's love of flowers and of the floral in general on oilcloth and ceramic. He wondered at his host's ability to stand so strenuously on his head on the edge of that unmade road.
One exceptional picture in this series is a portrait of a young woman, demure in a snowy landscape close to a hill topped by a domed church. Two pedestrians make their way, probably with difficulty, up a track through the deep snow. Together, the thoughtful girl, the church and the difficult walk constitute one of those structured narratives, rich in symbolic possibilities, to which photography has always been prone – part of the medium's inheritance from religious painting. In another wonderful discovery, perhaps with a Netherlandish provenance, an older woman carries two buckets on a yoke across what looks like a treacherous snowy landscape – an emblem, perhaps, advising caution in threatening conditions. The artist should be congratulated and admired, but again that is not exactly the point, for what has happened is that these circumstances, where he is both engaged and at ease, have delivered rich moments and fine discoveries. The pictures are an index of his contentment and inspiration, and even of his gratitude as a guest in that particular place with those people.